Snow White with Red Hair is something of a divisive title among its viewers, and the reasons behind these reactions are obvious. Throughout much of the first cour, and towards the end of the second, it primarily centres around isolated occurrences (which do, for the most part, pay off one way or another further down the line) in the castle that served to provide characterisation without necessarily giving the plot an obvious direction. It’s a simple but gratifying tale of people striving to be the best they can be, whatever their past mistakes or how ever intimidating the obstacles that lie ahead seem. While this style of storytelling is certainly not one that everyone is going to enjoy, it did allow ample time for the appreciation of some of the finest scenery, and most endearing character interactions, in anime of recent years.
Plot synopsis: Shirayuki, a young and hard working herbalist, gains the attention of the prince of Tanbarun with her flowing red hair. Forced to flee, she comes across Zen, the prince of Clarines, and becomes an apprentice herbalist at his castle and a figure of great importance.
The scenery of Snow White isn’t merely the result of strong digital processing or well made source material, though it doubtlessly had both these factors in its favour. Rather, the luminescent beauty of Clarines and Tanbarun deserve to be attributed to the meticulous creative choices, contrast and self-restraint of the staff at Bones, whose work on Snow arguably exceeds that of the effort on shows which technically have more detailed designs or higher production values. The background art on display is outstanding not only as potential wallpaper material, but for seamlessly setting the mood of the accompanying scene, indicating how measured or wild the surrounding plant life is (which in turn tells a story of its history and population) and subconsciously calming or alerting the audience through deliberate colour choice and lighting. These goals aren’t exclusive to Snow White, but what sets it apart from its glossy and colour-oriented contemporaries is how it is simultaneously lavish and measured, like the decorations of a castle that seek to impress without overwhelming. It doesn’t feel heavy handed in its atmosphere setting (unlike an infamous seasonal contemporary), but natural and warm as the sun.
A good counterpoint to this series would be the 2 season action series K Project, which is also praised for its visuals, though unlike Snow White, it lacks creativity and deliberation in its application of colour. By all accounts, both seasons of K Project should have ranked among the best of their respective years in the visuals department, but due to some strong creative shortcomings and poor design choices, neither of them do. The second season in particular is a spectacle of fluid animation and detailed bishounen character designs, with wide shots of a neon lit city that bustles with activity, solid effects work and even several instances of weighty choreography, but the almost omnipresent sickly greens and blues bleeding into each other soils the picture and nearly all of the aforementioned effort. Lighting is a cinematic tool that has only become more refined over the years, and vivid colours can make for some particularly emotionally evocative and descriptive scenes, though if used in abundance and a shallow intention to “look cool”, it can be more distracting than beneficial. GoHands is notoriously bad for producing anime with visual quality far below the sum of its animators’ contributions. As poor as K Project‘s incessant application of the same overbearing colours is, the fjord between the designs of Coppelion‘s stunning backgrounds and poorly composited newspaper-cutout characters is even worse, the final product downright tragic given the talent involved.
This problem isn’t exclusive to GoHands productions either; Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash also had beautiful, although rather limited in design, backgrounds that made for very appealing backgrounds… in frames devoid of badly composited characters. The ambiguous depth of field and almost meditative nature of the soft water colours left the characters floating in front of a backdrop that does not feel consistent with the foreground on an aesthetic or emotional level. Some series, such as Nagi no Asukara, succeed with consistent colour schemes, but that is because that series carries with it an air of mellow sadness from beginning to end, while Grimgar does not. This is not a deal breaker by any means, but the sacrifice of tonally appropriate backgrounds for consistent aesthetic appeal, whether fits the scene or not, separates a series with fair visual presentation from one with excellent presentation. Snow White falls into the latter category, convincingly selling a world that feels fantastical in calm and tense moments, without compromising the laxness or seriousness of either situation. It is quite the accomplishment that Snow White is able to make its fantasy setting standout without any supernatural forces, wars or “chosen one” style character arcs.
This is achieved through excellent choices of striking and complementary shades and colours, on both characters and the surroundings, in almost every scene. This can tell a story in and of itself; it is abundantly clear looking at Zen, with optimistic wide-eyes and puppy-like white hair, that he is a far cry from his borderline antagonistic brother, Izana, whose narrowed eyes and calculated charm makes him more genuinely intimidating than most full-fledged villains, even if the resemblance between the two is obvious. It even works to illustrate a change in relationships and state-of-mind, as is most evident through fan favourite Obi’s transformation. Initially, he was something of an antagonist, his cat like pupils constantly hooded by his mask, hiding much of his forehead and giving him an untrustworthy appearance. However, as Shirayuki expresses trust in him, and he warms up to her, he not only becomes noticeably more relaxed around her, but he also loses his mask and his eyes are no longer shadowed. These are by no means complex methods of visual storytelling, but in the too often exaggerated medium of anime, such changes and attention to detail are rare, and deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated. Most characters dress in a way that reflects their eye colour and nature; Ryuu‘s deep green eyes, and similarly coloured cloak, portray an awkward youth lost in his own thoughts, his occasional interactions oddly heartwarming. Zen is almost always adorned in bright blue, bringing out his eyes, and the same may be said for Raj (who’s browns are much less impressive than Zen’s blues) and even retainers Kiki and Matsuhide get this treatment.
In terms of scenery, Snow White is an absolute joy, despite not having the sharpness or depth of other fantasy anime like Tales of Zestiria the X or Flip Flappers. The various tiles on footsteps, roofs and pathways do not feel like copies of each other, but rather have slight differences in patterns and all react differently to light (See above). The forests have a softness reflective of a land not ravaged by war or natural disasters, but conditions that allow them to flourish and coexist peacefully; a stark contrast to an equally well made world, that of Seirei no Moribito, whose jagged and weathered cliff faces and forests were a pitch-perfect match for its grim themes and prophesied disastrous future. Another series that deserves props for its construction is Terror in Resonance, whose day segments were almost too white, uneasy to look at, and as unnerving as the series attempted to be (whether it succeeded is debatable, but I digress). Therein lies what makes Snow White‘s world feel so genuine and fitting for the narrative for which it was designed to facilitate. Masahiro Ando and Bones’s animators knew that they were not dealing with a dark series, and as a result even bandit camps. The world is not incapable of being threatening or forbidding, but the moments of unease are visually presented in a manner consistent with the rest of the series.
Animation is a medium that allows for endless visual possibilities, and Snow White is one of the most vivid recent examples of something truly captivating in both richness and consistency. It’s not a visual masterpiece, with character animation art and animation slipping to a noticeable degree in the second season and the sugary sweet animation may come off as too monochromatic to some, but nonetheless there are some truly special moments to behold here. But Snow White with Red Hair is a tale devoid with grim details and scarcely a drop of blood is spilled. It is a narrative about genuinely good people set in a genuinely warm and welcoming fantasy setting that, despite being one of the calmest you can find in anime, is one of the most entrancing and inviting you can come across.